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Architect Explores Wall Street's Details & History

Today AD returns to New York City for a deep-dive walking tour of Wall Street in Downtown Manhattan with architect Nicholas Potts.

Released on 02/16/2023


I'm Nick Potts, I'm an architect.

Today we're on Wall Street and we'll be doing

an architectural walk and tour of the neighborhood.

[soft jazz music]

Wall Street has its reputation of being

the financial capital of the country,

but the reason it's called Wall Street

is that we are at the edge of the settlement

of New Amsterdam

where really the city stopped right where it is

and there was a defensive wall.

Other things that happen at the edge

of any settlement is trade, and that's exactly

what is happening here in the Wall Street areas.

There was trade

amongst the indigenous populations immediately to the north

as the the colonists were finding things to sell to them.

There's also the sale in trading of goods

and commodities and because this is America in that period

also the sale of people through slavery.

So this is really the nexus

of all the things that were being traded

in America at this time.

Right now we are on Wall Street at Broad Street right

outside of the New York Stock Exchange.

Stock trading had existed on this site really

as far back into the early 18th century.

There was a series

of outdoor auctions that actually took place here

on Wall Street around 1793 that started

to become formalized.

So these outdoor markets, which originally took place

under a tree, started taking place within coffee shops.

And as technology developed and the whole business

of trading commodities became more formalized

there's a need for space to do it.

And as electricity, the telegraph made it possible

for people in offices to communicate

down through ticker tape to people on a floor.

You start having a need for a trading floor.

And so this building is really that sort of technology.

What you have

underneath this big neoclassical impediment is

a giant floor where stock traders could mingle

with one another.

These giant windows are bathing light in this very deep

large space, the tall windows height means light.

And so what you have is a very high technology

building hiding under the respectability

of a Roman temple front.

And you see the columns, these Corinthian columns

which are almost religious when you start looking closer

and it's much more Americanized.

If you look at the sculpture

in the pediment, these aren't gods.

It's actually a representation of industry

and the industry that made prosperity.

You see mining, you see agriculture

you see industrial manufacturing

you see sciences all represented in this pediment

as if they're the things being worshiped

within this modern temple.

Another interesting thing to note about

there's obviously there's no offices in this building.

It's increasingly as technology lighting

and the ability to put more people

in a large space became more pronounced

trading floors needed much more space.

So this is really, it's actually quite small

and it's smaller than what you do now.

The building stock that exists here really

can't house modern finance.

So a lot of the banks have moved uptown or further

out where they can build much larger floor plates.

And a lot of these buildings, cause they're quite narrow

have been retro fitted as residences

and hotels where you can have much narrower floor plates.

[soft music]

We are on the corner

of Liberty Suite and Nassau Street right

in front of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

When the Federal Reserve system was created

New York could not appear to be the only one.

So their branch or actually equal federal reserves scattered

across the country.

And this building, though it looks very ancient,

it's appropriating renaissance forms.

It's actually quite new obviously because

of Federal Reserve system didn't exist before then.

In spite of its newness, it's trying as hard

as it can to look old and stable and permanent.

And if you look at the stone

so it's actually made of two types of stone.

The more yellow blocks are sandstone

the whiter ones are limestone.

So that sort of mixing

of different stones was meant to look of that age.

It's similar to what you see at Yale where they threw acid

at buildings to kind of create a bit of instant history.

And you can see by the size

of the people walking by the stones of the building

just how huge these stones are.

These are meant to express their permanence

in their solidity.

Here they went even one step further

and did something called pulvinating which is

it almost looks like a pillow.

It's this giant rounded corner.

And so that's expressing the bigness

and the permanence and the stability

of the building and our financial system.

The type of building or the style building that

they appropriated for this renaissance palazzo.

They were both places of commerce and fortresses for

if you think about the Medici and the extremely wealthy

families in Renaissance Florence,

these buildings were fortresses.

And there's a little bit of that going on here.

It's slightly castley.

You see the carnations

at the top of the building, there's a tower.

So it's meant to look stable and permanent

and as if it could stand up to the onslaught

of a war should that happen, which is fitting for

for an institution that's meant to,

house is the reserves of our nation's finances.

The metal work is kind of doing two things here.

For one, it looks impenetrable and fortress like,

it's also if you look closer, a work of art.

I mean this is the work

of Samuel Yellin who was the master of Iron work.

He worked out of Philadelphia and did some

of the most extraordinary iron work

of this country in the middle of the turn of the 19th

century and the early 20th century.

[soft music]

Now we are outside of 55 Wall Street.

This is a building that's interesting

in that it's changed over the course of its lifetime.

And it started in the 1840s as the Merchants Exchange.

You can see on the bottom of the building

that was the original building.

It was load-bearing masonry

a very simple Greek revival sort building.

One row of ionic columns.

As the whole national financial market matured

that sort of exchange no longer needed a building like that.

So they moved off, it became a customs house and it became

in 1907 the headquarters for National City Bank.

And so in order to make this our headquarters taking

over this more kind of publicly facing market building

they extended it vertically upwards in a steel building.

And you can see the intersection of two styles

the very simple ionic columns

on the lower part of the building are superseded

by these giant Corinthian columns in the Citibank expansion.

Part of the reason

that Wall Street has also been important is that it meets

on the East River one of the most important areas

for offloading goods and shipments for the new world.

So this building at one point

after the Merchant's Exchange have moved

out was the customs house.

So it was the place where customs and duties on goods

coming in for the port were assessed.

So the Merchants Exchange

when this was still the original tenant of the building

built something that looked like a temple again to show

that it was viable and stable

and there's no better way to do that

than to borrow from antiquity in classism.

So that's why the ionic order, it projects stability

and permanence for a sort of institution

a trading floor that really didn't have a building type.

And it wasn't something that people would say, oh

like this is what a stock exchange looks like.

It didn't exist.

So you borrow and you kind of appropriate

from what people did know, which is the past.

The original Merchants Exchange was the 1840s.

The addition was 1907.

So the addition is actually right

around the same time as the New York Stock Exchange.

So it's kind of the second generation

of buildings on this street.

And the second form, this is before skyscrapers.

So the buildings are still somewhat low and more horizontal

but we're starting to edge

up in the super capitalist era when buildings

wanted to get much taller.

And so you can see as these buildings became obsolete

they got taken over by new uses

because the land is still valuable

and turned into something new and different.

[soft music]

So right now we are outside of One Wall Street

on the corner of Wall Street and Broadway.

This is obviously an art deco skyscraper.

It follows the 1916 zoning resolution.

So you notice as the building steps up

it gets smaller and smaller.

This is partially to maintain light

and air at the base of the building.

And this is some of these competing interests that exist

in downtown Manhattan.

This need, because the real estate is so

valuable to essentially multiply the lot as many times

as you can and charge as much rent, but then

the competing public interest to preserve the public realm

and make sure that we're not sacrificing the public realm

for very tall buildings.

And this is really one

of the more perfect art deco skyscrapers that does this.

The architect of this Ralph Walker

really made his name doing AT&T buildings

and there's several in Tribeca

which were buildings that were all

about technology in the optimism of the future.

And in One Wall Street, he's taken a lot of those motifs

and those stylized non historical, non-classical forms

and has translated them into a very tall office building.

You'll notice, unlike a more neoclassical building

that would've a base, middle, and a top, in this building

the the lines run straight

from the ground all the way up to the sky,

almost as if the building is disappearing into the sky.

If you look at the details of this building,

it's really extraordinary.

The windows in each of the tilted bays are all curved

which is something you don't really see.

It's a very kind of custom bespoke detailed.

When One Wall Street was built

it was an advertisement for the bank that built it.

And so this was the most valuable piece of

of real estate in the country.

And they bought this knowing

that they wanted to build a very tall building

and profess their stability, particularly

because this building was going on during the depression.

They chose to go on to show,

we are strong, we are solvent.

And so building a big building

during the depression was the ultimate mark

of confidence in the market and in the institutions.

So a very tall building

like this directly across from Trinity Church

which at the time was considered a very tall building.

This is really the triumph of finance over religion.

You can see this looming tall cascading spire

of commerce directly in an opposition

of Trinity Church across the street.

[soft music]

Right now we are in front of Trinity Church

at the head of Wall Street in the financial district.

This is actually the third Trinity Church that's existed

on this site.

The first one dated all the way back to 1698.

It's a gothic revival building.

Trinity Church has really had a history that's

mirrored a lot of the accumulation

of wealth in downtown Manhattan.

It's a interesting combination of, you think about

it's at the foot of our most famous financial center

Wall Street, but it's church and it's very American kind

of merging of the sacred and the financial.

And Trinity Church is really the perfect example of this.

I mean, as the church got wealthier, it grew

it continues to be one of the most important landlords

in Manhattan.

They granted a about 200 acres by Queen Anne

and 1705 and they still control a lot of that.

As Trinity Church goes, so does Wall Street.

When this was built, this was the tallest building

in the country for quite some time after it was built.

So you think about tall buildings, skyscrapers

and tall churches, it's kind of again this overlap

in this paradox of Wall Street.

Another interesting thing

about this site is you see the pyramid right there

that's actually Alexander Hamilton, really the father

of our financial system is actually buried here

at the head of Wall Street.

So it's just, kind of the perfect American finance

story here at Trinity Church.

[soft music]

So we are standing in front

of the Equitable building at 120 Broadway.

This is really the tall building that caused

the tall buildings that would follow.

If you think about the forces of finance

want you to multiply a floor as much

as possible and get as much rent as you can.

That's exactly what happened.

The building is essentially a rectangle

of the lot shot straight up.

When this was built people freaked out.

It was so tall, so scary

that the direct resultant of this building was what's known

as the 1916 zoning resolution.

The setbacks that were proposed

as part of the 1916 zoning resolution meant

that the building needed to get smaller

and smaller to, you know, make sure that

enough light gets the streets that people aren't stuck

in these dark canyons which is exactly what people

felt when this was built.

It's a fairly straightforward Bozart's building

just kind of multiplied on top of itself forever.

One of the interesting tidbits about this is that

the 1916 zoning resolution created the New York Department

of City Planning who's actually currently in this building.

So there's a little bit of full circleness going

on here where they created the zoning resolution

against the building but then they occupy the building

that their jobs created.

The Bozart style is really about classism.

The architects who were working

in that style we're looking back towards Paris.

They're looking back towards people like Vitruvius

and Alberti and these looks of order and classism.

And you can almost see a column in the building that's a

a very defined base, a shaft, and then a top and a cornis.

So the building both contains elements of classical

architecture and the classical orders of architecture.

But the building itself is also a representation of that

which is as tall buildings became a type

people were going back and forth

whether to apply historic forms and apply historic rules

for buildings to them or to invent something totally new.

And so this is in the more kind

of reactionary historicist model as opposed to

kind of the more inventive forms that came out of this.

So directly next door to the Equitable building

which created the 1916 zoning resolution

we see a more modern interpretation of a later zoning code

the 1961 zoning resolution in 140 Broadway.

And in that more updated zoning

new rules came into place rather

than just tapering it introduced bonusing for a plaza.

So this introduced these buildings rather

than a building going to the lot line and tapering

up the 1961 zoning resolution let you build taller

if you would give more of the space back to the public.

And so you see these towers on big plazas largely as a

as a game to play against zoning to get a little bit

more extra height through bonusing, create a plaza.

It's generally a privately owned public plaza.

So there are rules

it's not really a public space, but regardless

that still allowed the developer to build taller

than they ordinarily would, would've been able to do.